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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Twelve Days of Translated Fiction - Day Ten - My best reads for 2015

Onto the top ten of translated fiction that I have read in 2015. A number of books that I read are published in the prior year and make the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (to be known as the Man Booker International Prize from 2016) or the Best Translated Book Award longlists, where I tend to draw the majority of my reading from. Therefore my highlights of the year could well seem quite dated compared to some other lists out there that only focus on works published in 2015.

Today’s book has appeared on the “best” lists, long lists, shortlists all over the planet, taking out a number of awards this year, including the last ever Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Jenny Erpenbeck’s win in that Prize was the second only female to take out the award in its 21-year history, with Marta Morazzoni being the only other female winner, back in 2001 for her novel “The Alphonse Courrier Affair” (translated by Emma Rose). That win, in 2001, became “lost” for a number of years and it was only after Erpenbeck came into calculations this year and the debate about the lack of female representation escalated that Morazzoni’s win was “rediscovered”. 

Of the official shortlisted books for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, “The End Of Days” was the standout. To see the official shortlist click here.

Saying that I’ve now revealed at least five other works that I read and reviewed during the year, which will not make my top ten!!!

Our novel opens with a very small child, just born, taking her last breath and dying. We have the impacted lives voices telling their emotional tales. Due to the premature death, the husband wife relationship cannot bear the strain and they go their own separate ways, him to America:

When it’s his turn, he’s brought into the examination room and told to undress completely. He doesn’t understand the instructions in English, but even after an interpreter translates them for him, he doesn’t move. Have the Americans lost their minds? Or do they really think of it as a second birth when you set foot in their country? In any case, his examinations at the Technical University in Vienna – which certainly weren’t easy – had gone differently.
Come on they say, meaning: Hurry up.
There’s no help for it: More naked than he ever stood before his wife, he must now, like it or not, stand here in the light and present himself to an entire group of doctors. If only you could know in advance where the path you choose freely will lead. His coat and clothing are meanwhile being disinfected, when he gets them back after the examination they are crumpled. Shame, then, is the price one pays for this life of freedom, or is this itself the freedom: that shame no longer matters? Then America really must be Paradise.

This early section deftly plays on your emotions, it draws you into the shattered world of the players, the wife, the husband, the grandmother. It is a world destroyed by a child’s death.

But what if one of the parents had thought to grab a handful of snow and put it on the child’s chest, forcing it to breathe again? The story would be reimagined. Could there be a different outcome?

In between the “Books” (five in number) there is an “Intermezzo” where the story of the child is changed, generally due to a very minor event, causing the whole future of events to be profoundly different (or are they?). Book Two imagines the life of the young girl, but does she die a tragic death as well, only to have an “Intermezzo” and a different sequence of events occurs.

Set in pre-World War Two Vienna, through the War, into Stalin’s Moscow and onto a recent Berlin, this work also addresses Germany through extremely turbulent times. Our longlist this year had a large representation of German works (Daniel Kehlmann’s “F”, Judith Schalansky’s “The Giraffe’s Neck”, Stephanie de Velasco’s debut “Tiger Milk” and Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back”) – possibly too many for my liking, making it a little top heavy for one language and country.

Addressing a raft of human issues, from refugees, to underground meetings, from prostitution, to loving relationships, from birth to death:

A day on which a life comes to an end if still far from being the end of days.

We have references to Goethe, more specifically “Iphigenia”, who was saved from death but not in her homeland. And if I was writing a thesis, I’d probably research that work and the parallel’s here, but I’m not, I’ve got more translated books to read!!!

Book three overs to a detailed explanation of our protagonist (the girl who dies on page one or thereabouts) and her joining the Communist Party of Austria, a reverse explanation whilst she is living in Russia, writing to get her citizenship. What pile will her application end up on, the one for the firing squad? Such random events determining our existence.

For my full review of Erpenbeck’s rightfully lauded novel click here

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